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It’s ladies day. Essential Film Performances continues with classic moments from Goldie Hawn, Betty Hutton, Catherine Keener, Elsa Lanchester, and the incomparable Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday.


 
Goldie Hawn - The First Wives Club
(Hugh Wilson, 1996)


Few actresses of a certain age have been given the creative license to interpret such an outrageous personality as The First Wives’ Club‘s Elise Elliot, played with effortless comic precision by the legendarily bubbly Goldie Hawn. She has always been known primarily as a comedienne (despite such a bravura dramatic turn in 1974’s The Sugarland Express), but as Elise, she is able to comment on her own image, her profession, and even her future by delivering perhaps the finest, funniest and most physical performance of her entire career (though please note it was very close between this and Overboard).


‘There are three ages of women in Hollywood: babe, district attorney, and Driving Miss Daisy”, bemoans the aging actress Elise Elliot. Once a great, much-awarded star actress, Elise has fallen from Grace, relegated to “mother” roles and lost in at the wrong end of a vodka bottle. Her husband leaves her for a starlet half her age, and that is when Elise begins to change. Along with her college buddies Brenda and Annie (Bette Midler and Diane Keaton), Elise masterminds a revenge scheme to take all of their no-good husbands down. As Elise lets go of her past, Hawn is a marvel at conveying her character’s major attitude shifts through simple glances and gestures. It’s a thrill-a-minute watching Hawn’s hilarious reaction to being told she is being considered for the role of the mother rather than the ingénue. The dreadful realization that she is no longer a girl in her twenties sends Elise on a boozy bender, which isn’t to say that it takes much of an excuse for Elise to grab a bottle. Though her character’s alcoholism is played for laughs at times, credit must be given to Hawn for meticulously mapping out Elise’s arc and using each second she is on screen to propel her forward through her journey through middle age, a time when many actresses begin to get the cold shoulder from Hollywood. One can see Hawn’s own frustration with the system and even pain at times, but then, in true Goldie style, she laughs it off, she lets it all go, and her carefree spirit soars. ~ Matt Mazur


 
Audrey Hepburn - Roman Holiday
(William Wyler, 1953)


They say a great performance is defined by whether we can imagine someone else playing the part or not. The role of Princess Ann in Roman Holiday was originally supposed to go to either Jean Simmons or Elizabeth Taylor, but a now legendary accident during Audrey Hepburn’s audition gave the young actress her first leading role in a Hollywood motion picture, and now it would be impossible to imagine anyone else being so wonderful in it. Playing the princess of an unnamed European nation visiting Rome allowed Hepburn to epitomize what star quality was all about. The camera simply adores her and her beauty and charm are such, that she’s all we see even if the movie features some stunning vistas of Rome (it was the first American production completely filmed in Italy). The princess finds a romantic interest in Joe Bradley, an American journalist played by Gregory Peck and we see them create one of Hollywood’s most iconic screen romances.


What turns out to be so magnificent about Hepburn’s work, is that we truly believe she’s a royal. During one of the funniest scenes in the film she mistakenly assumes that Joe’s small apartment in the elevator, even if this should seem slightly offensive, watching Hepburn’s face react to her mistake is heartbreaking. We’re not supposed to pity this spoiled young lady, but we can’t help but feel sorry for the isolated way in which she’s been living, we understand that while the story might be satirizing the lives of the ridiculously privileged, the actress playing the part knows where to find her humanity.


In the film’s most delightful sequence we see Princess Ann mingling amongst regular folk, she gets a haircut, visits Roman landmarks and even tries gelato. To see her experiencing all of these simple pleasures for the first time turns out to be even more pleasurable for us as audience members, because we want nothing more than to see this magical being be happy. As the film reaches its devastating finale, we see how Ann has grown from a meek child, into a woman prepared to embrace responsibilities. Our hearts might break for her in the end, but Audrey’s magic make every little ache worth it. ~ Jose Solis Mayen


 
Betty Hutton - The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek
(Preston Sturges, 1945)


Preston Sturges’ World War II satire, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, is about the swellest patriotic-drunken-out-of-wedlock-date-rape screwball farce you’ll ever view. Writer-director Sturges is hell bent on amusing, offending and indicting home front hysteria with stealth precision that somehow skirted major gutting from Hays Office censors. That Morgan’s Creek–with a plot set in motion by a suddenly pregnant young woman who thinks she might be married to an enlisted man with a name like “Ratzkiwatkzi”—eventually includes everything from bigamy to Adolf Hitler to a sly Nativity allegory makes its approval by censors even more happily dumfounding.


The not-quite Virgin Mary of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is the quite blessed Betty Hutton in a performance that gives the hilariously implausible a kooky credibility. As Khaki-wacky small town Trudy Kockenlocker (the surname sounds suggestive, if not pornographic), Hutton is the good girl whose patriotic fervor induces lapses of judgment that Sturges reflexively tosses back to wartime audiences. After all, what else could a young woman do for the boys? Sturges immediately calls into question the unsaid duty of single women in service to the effort and Hutton exemplifies the ridiculousness and peril of this responsibility with distinct absurdity.


She’s referred to as “one the prettiest girls in town” before she is introduced with the antithesis of glamorous entrances: Hutton lipsyncs for a group of servicemen along with a basso profondo recording with the over-exaggerated facial gestures of a constipated frog. This is definitely not Rita Hayworth flipping her hair in Gilda, folks. Hutton’s rubbery grimaces and robust mannerisms contradict expectations even as the troops clamor for a chance to jitterbug with Trudy later in the evening. If Morgan’s Creek is subversive entertainment, then Preston Sturges and his star likewise disassemble the concept of bombshell leading ladies within her first two minutes on screen.


Everything about Betty Hutton in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is delightfully impulsive but never vulgar. Trudy Kockenlocker might be reckless as she tricks her policeman father (William Demarest, lovably gruff and befuddled as the single parent of Trudy and her wise ass younger sister, portrayed by Diana Lynn) into attending the dance, but she is never saucy or loose. Even when Trudy coerces her smitten 4F childhood friend Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken, the goofy male yin to Hutton’s wacky yang) into providing cover, she is never coldly calculating.


Betty Hutton affirms the duplicity with kindness even as Trudy twists Norval’s emotions into compliancy during a hilariously extended stroll through Morgan’s Creek. By the time homely, lovelorn Norval and the audience realizes the cleverness of the coercion, Trudy is bopping from serviceman to serviceman, smooching her way through the night in a whirlwind of patriotic duty powered by Victory Lemonade. A multitude of consequences unfold as the film accelerates towards a rowdy, brilliant climax. When it deliriously unravels, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek hinges on the audiences belief that Trudy is one of us, not a party-girl opportunist who uses wartime zeal as an excuse for promiscuity. Betty Hutton’s performance is that of a pin-up girl dismantled, a rollicking measure of daffy virtue. She’s the boisterous truth layered beneath the ideal. ~ Doug Johnson


 
Catherine Keener - The 40 Year Old Virgin
(Judd Apatow, 2005)


Judd Apatow films are known for being guys movies. Specifically, movies about grown men acting like little boys before learning to act their age. So usually it’s Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, or Steve Carell who get the majority of the attention from critics. Yet Catherine Keener, an oft-utilized but still undervalued actress, deserves just as much of the credit for the ensemble-driven, star-making 2005 comedy, The 40 Year Old Virgin as her more rambunctious costars.


Trish, the lucky lady love who gets to deflower Steve Carell’s Andy, may actually be the most interesting and self-motivated character in Apatow’s directorial cannon. Lest we forget, Trish has a unique and well defined background that’s expounded on again and again throughout the lengthy comedy. She’s a single mom—a single grandma, actually—who owns a store where she doesn’t sell anything. She’s encouraging, but not overbearing. Cautious, but not prudish. Kind, but not naive. Haters would point out Trish’s eBay store as another example of Apatow treating his female characters like they’re stupid, but it’s really impossible to see Trish that way, and much of the credit goes to Keener. 


Despite all of that alluring background, Trish still isn’t the central character. She’s a valuable part of a harmonious clan of comics, but Trish is still, at her most basic level, simply the love interest to our protagonist. It’s Keener that makes all of her quirks not only memorable, but thoroughly touching and entertaining. Her charming smile accompanied by that equally alluring laugh. The attention paid to her costars. The passion in her physical and emotional desires. She simply has a presence that makes it easy for the audience to acquiesce to her wishes. It’s not an innate ability either, making it all the more impressive—and valuable—in a lighthearted yet substantial film like The 40 Year Old Virgin. ~ Ben Travers


 
Elsa Lanchester - Bell Book and Candle
(Richard Quine, 1958)


Most people who know Elsa Lanchester think of her as The Bride of Frankenstein, but Lanchester’s role in that film is actually rather small. For a more complete view of her skills, one need only check out Bell Book and Candle, 1958’s tale of witches in modern day New York. Lanchester plays Queenie, aka Aunty, the aunt of modern witch Kim Novak. Queenie has her own powers, which she uses primarily for tomfoolery, but they are nowhere as powerful as her niece’s. The role calls for an actress who has a child-like quality, viewing Manhattan as one big playground through which she can spread her mischief, and Lanchester is the ideal actress for the part. With her wide-eyed stares of amazement and giggling grins, she exudes playfulness. When paired with the previous year’s Witness for the Prosecution, the two films show a remarkable range for a woman delegated to supporting character roles due to her less than glamorous looks and high-pitched voice.


Lanchester doesn’t have any pivotal scenes in Bell Book and Candle, although she is a catalyst for the mayhem Novak creates for Jimmy Stewart. The charm of her performance doesn’t come from any big laughs or scenery-chewing moments, but from her very presence. She is that crazy, fun-loving aunt that we all had as a kid, or wished we had. Her befuddlement at receiving a non-magical gift for Christmas - a scarf - is priceless as she tries to figure out what she is supposed to do with it, draping it over her head and across her brow. Yet, Lanchester knows when to dial back the fun when she needs to. In one scene, Queenie comforts her crying niece, saying little as the two look at Novak’s reflection in the mirror. It is a minor scene, but Lanchester’s attention to detail is remarkable - the steadfastness with which she watches her grieving niece, the careful placement of a hand on a shoulder, the compassionate look that never waivers. Lanchester once famously commented that her career consisted of “large parts in lousy pictures and small parts in big pictures”; whether the role was large or small, Lanchester committed wholly, and the picture was that much better for her presence. ~ Michael Abernethy


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